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Deal on automatic spending cuts is unlikely

White House, GOP bicker as hopes dim; Mass. could lose thousands of jobs

WASHINGTON — The White House and congressional Republicans intensified their differences Sunday over how to deal with automatic spending cuts slated to take effect Friday, raising the possibility that the political standoff could curtail many government services and result in the loss of thousands of jobs in Massachusetts.

GOP leaders insisted in appearances on Sunday talk shows that they were willing to let the budget reductions go into effect, while Democrats sharpened their call for increased revenue.

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The cuts, known on Capitol Hill as sequestration, will slash $85 billion from the proposed 2013 federal budget. Drawing equally from defense and non-defense discretionary spending, the reductions would affect everything from military readiness to childcare subsidies. And it could threaten thousands of Bay State jobs, according to the White House.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick slammed sequestration on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, saying the cuts would hurt the state’s education system and slash investment in infrastructure and innovation.

“Those three things have been the formula for our growing in Massachusetts faster than the national growth rate and coming out of the recession faster than most other states,” Patrick said. “It’s a winning formula for the nation, as well. And we cannot slow that down.”

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Massachusetts could lose up to 60,000 jobs and $127 million in federal research funding if a deal isn’t reached, according to a report released earlier this month by Representative Edward Markey of Malden. It would also mean less money for about 60 Bay State schools, cuts to special education and fewer children in the federally funded Head Start early education program, according to the White House.

Republican leaders said Sunday that the administration is overstating the economic impact of sequestration while the president is trying to make his case to the public. Both parties continued pointing fingers over who proposed the cuts, as a deal by Friday to avert what the White House calls “a self-inflicted wound” on a still sluggish economy seems unlikely.

“Nothing the Republicans are saying right now on Sunday suggests that, by Friday, they’re going to change their position,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in a conference call with reporters. “They’re making a policy choice to put these cuts into effect.

“This is going to have very real impact on people’s lives,” he added. “People need to know why that is.” He acknowledged that the cuts will not all take effect at once, but noted that the effect will still be painful.

Republican leaders such as Senator Tom Coburn, however, said Sunday the administration is exaggerating the cuts’ economic impact. While sequestration is a “terrible way to cut spending,” he said, it’s preferable to allowing federal spending to continue to rise.

Though the sequester calls for the White House to reduce spending by $85 billion this fiscal year, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that agencies will cut actual expenses by $44 billion in 2013, with remaining reductions to come later. That makes up less than 4 percent of federal discretionary spending.

“There [are] easy ways to cut this money that the American people will never feel,” Coburn, of Oklahoma, said on “Fox News Sunday. “It will be somewhat painful, but not cutting spending is going to be disastrous for our country.”

Despite widespread condemnation of the cuts on Sunday talk shows by some lawmakers, governors and administration officials, few were optimistic that a deal could be reached by the end of the week. Instead, leaders gave priority to assigning blame, both for who suggested the cuts and why they might actually take effect.

“I said during the campaign and so did others say, we’ve got to stop this from happening,” Arizona Senator John McCain said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The president has now said it was Congress’s fault. We know the president wasn’t telling the truth about that.”

Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, countered on “Fox News Sunday:” “Unless the Republicans are willing to compromise and do a balanced approach, I think [sequestration] will kick in. . . . Let’s fund the government. Let’s quit careening from crisis to crisis that, frankly, hurts confidence of investors across this country and hurts our economy.”

Obama took his case for a sequestration alternative to voters in his weekly address Saturday, saying Congress could stave off the cuts “with just a little compromise.” Critics have rebuked the effort as political grandstanding. Though Capitol Hill has grown increasingly familiar with last-minute deals, Obama aides admit that a comprehensive compromise can’t be reached in the next five days.

The president’s proposal would include more modest spending cuts along with entitlement reform and about $600 billion in new revenue, totaling $1.8 trillion in long-term savings. The plan won the praise of Patrick — in Washington this week to meet with the National Governors Association. Patrick criticized House Republicans’ obstructionism.

“The only plan on the table right now to avoid sequester is the president’s plan,” Patrick said. “The president has shown that a balanced approach — which is about cuts and closing loopholes — that enables us to invest in the things that grow jobs, is important and appropriate for us at this time.”

Patrick added that sequestration would slow the Bay State’s economic recovery. Massachusetts will lose more than $27 million in education funding in 2013 if the cuts go into effect, according to the White House. About 7,000 in-state defense workers could be furloughed for 22 days this year, and funding for childcare, substance abuse programs and meals for seniors will go under the knife.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs if the cuts take effect. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, meanwhile, warned of increased wait times for air travelers on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Such federal agency officials will spend this week forming plans to reduce their budgets to comply with sequestration. Danny Werfel, controller of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, said that while officials have some room to choose where specific cuts will be, that’s not to say their effects will be nullified.

“There is no road map of flexibility that allows you to eliminate many, many of the disruptions that are going to occur,” Werfel said on a conference call with reporters Sunday.

Patrick was joined on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” by Louisiana’s governor, potential 2016 presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, who panned Obama’s leadership during the sequestration debate. Like Coburn, Jindal argued that cutting less than 4 percent of the budget would neither hollow out the military nor jeopardize air traffic.

“Governors solve this, families out there, businesses during this recession have had to tighten their belts and do more with less,” he said.

But the Bay State governor stood by the president, for whom he was a frequent surrogate during the 2012 campaign.

“This is all about growth,” Patrick said. “It has always been about growth from the president’s perspective and it ought to be about growth from the American people’s perspective. Government has a role to play in that.”

David Uberti can be reached at David.Uberti@globe.com.
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